What's In Blue

Posted Thu 5 Aug 2021

Afghanistan: Briefing and Closed Consultations

Tomorrow (6 August) morning, the Security Council will convene in person for a briefing and closed consultations on Afghanistan. Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), is expected to brief. Afghanistan’s new Permanent Representative to the UN, Ghulam M. Isaczai, is expected to participate in the briefing under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. Tomorrow’s meeting was requested by Estonia and Norway, the co-penholders on Afghanistan, to discuss recent developments in Afghanistan, including an escalating Taliban military offensive and a 30 July attack on a UNAMA compound in Herat.

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is expected to be a key focus of tomorrow’s meeting. In recent months, the Taliban has conducted an intense military offensive in different parts of the country. The group has reportedly captured more territory in the last two months than during any other period since the US invasion in 2001, and analysts estimate that it now controls more than half of the districts in Afghanistan. International observers argue that the Taliban has been emboldened by the withdrawal of US troops, which was initially announced in April and is now more than 95 percent complete, according to US officials.

While the Taliban has mostly made territorial gains in rural areas, the group has also resumed major attacks on Afghan cities. In recent days, the fighting has been particularly severe in Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan, where the civilian population is reportedly caught in the crossfire between the Afghan army and the Taliban forces laying siege to the city. On 3 August, UNAMA reported that 40 civilians were killed and a further 118 were injured in Lashkar Gar on the preceding day and called for an immediate end to all fighting in urban areas. If the Taliban captures Lashkar Gar, it will be the first provincial capital that it has seized since 2016. In Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Kandahar, fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan government has intensified significantly. Approximately 1,000 people have reportedly been killed by the Taliban in Kandahar and the surrounding province during July. On 4 August, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on the Kabul home of acting Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, which killed eight people. Mohammadi was not harmed in the attack. Heavy fighting has also taken place in Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan. A 30 July attack on UNAMA’s compound in Herat resulted in the death of one Afghan police officer and injured several people. UNAMA issued a press release that blamed “anti-government elements” for carrying out the attack.

On 3 August, members of the Security Council issued a press statement regarding the attack on UNAMA’s compound and the security situation in Afghanistan. In the press statement, Council members expressed their “deep concern about the high levels of violence in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s military offensive” and called for an “immediate reduction of violence”. They also “called on both the Islamic Republic and the Taliban to engage meaningfully in an inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process in order to make urgent progress towards a political settlement and a ceasefire”. An earlier draft of the press statement apparently included language that blamed the Taliban for the increase in violence and called on only the Taliban, rather than both sides, to engage in the peace negotiations. Some Council members, however, argued that the statement should highlight the responsibility of both the Afghan government and the Taliban to reduce violence and engage meaningfully with the peace process. Other members contended that the Taliban’s role in causing the recent violence should be recognised. The final text reflects a negotiated compromise between these positions.

The Taliban’s military offensive has been accompanied by a dramatic surge in violence and human rights violations. As set out in UNAMA’s protection of civilians mid-year update, which was issued on 26 July, the total number of civilians killed and injured in Afghanistan between 1 January and 30 June increased by 47 percent, compared with the first half of 2020. The report also says that UNAMA is concerned by the increased number of civilian casualties since the international troop withdrawal was announced in April. It notes that “the number of civilian casualties in May-June 2021 was the highest on record for those two months since UNAMA began systematic documentation”. Human Rights Watch warned in a 3 August statement that the Taliban has been summarily executing individuals it suspects of being associated with the Afghan government, including members of the police force, provincial government officials, Afghan army troops, and their relatives.

Meanwhile, the peace talks in Doha continue to stall. According to Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, the Taliban is demanding the “lion’s share of power” in any future Afghan government. Some observers claim that the group is using its recent military success to justify its demands. A meeting between the extended “Troika” (which comprises China, Russia, the US and Pakistan), the Afghan government and the Taliban is scheduled for 11 August. The meeting is reportedly intended to give the peace negotiations renewed impetus.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Lyons is likely to highlight the effects of the escalation in violence on the civilian population in Afghanistan and the worsening humanitarian situation. In her briefing during the Council’s latest quarterly meeting on Afghanistan, which was held on 22 June, Lyons noted that “almost one-third of Afghans face emergency levels of food insecurity, while this year’s drought worsens, and internal displacements increase”. She may emphasise the significance of the peace negotiations and urge the Council to encourage both sides to engage with the peace process.

Council members are expected to express concern regarding the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and call for an immediate ceasefire. Some members may condemn the Taliban for its role in the escalating violence. Several members might note that it will be difficult for the international community to accept a regime that comes to power through the use of force. Council members are also likely to highlight the urgent need for the parties to engage in an inclusive peace process and find a just and realistic political solution to the conflict. They may reiterate the importance of preserving the advances in relation to the rights of women, children and minorities which have been made in the last 20 years. With UNAMA’s mandate due for renewal in September, some Council members are likely to voice their support for UNAMA and its work. Given the increasingly dire humanitarian situation, the importance of facilitating humanitarian access is also likely to be discussed.